April 23, 2009
Compliments of the season
By Gary Hayden
'Nothing can be pleasanter than an old age of leisure.'
Previously, I examined Roman philosopher Cicero's response to two complaints that people commonly make against old age: that it withdraws us from active employment and that it enfeebles the body. This week, I will consider his response to two further charges: that old age deprives us of physical pleasures and that it is the next step to death.
Pleasures for young and old
People complain that old age deprives us of physical pleasures. Here, the kinds of pleasures Cicero has in mind are 'feasts, games and mistresses'. In other words, the whole gamut of sensual pleasures into which young people throw themselves with such energy, enthusiasm and abandon.
Older people can, of course, enjoy sex, sport, and food and drink too, but their enjoyment of them tends to be more moderate and, for some, this is a profound cause of regret. A middle-aged colleague once recounted to me, with great relish, some of the many romantic encounters he enjoyed when he was young. He then shook his head sadly and bemoaned the fact that never again would he enjoy such varied and intense sexual experiences.
Cicero accepts that there are certain pleasures that are enjoyed most fully by the young but he is quick to point out that there are other pleasures best appreciated by the old. Here, he returns to a theme that recurs throughout his writing: that human life has its seasons and that each season brings its own particular benefits.
If we are wise, we will reap the harvest of the present season rather than bemoan the lost benefits of seasons gone by. By this account, my middle-aged colleague would have done better to enter fully into the pleasures of family life rather than pine over the lost pleasures of youth.
'There are certain pursuits adapted to childhood,' wrote Cicero. 'There are others suited to early manhood... There are others suited to [middle-age]... There are, finally, some which belong to old age.'
But if 'feasts, games and mistresses' are best appreciated by the young, which pleasures are best suited to the elderly? This will depend, to a degree, on individual tastes. In general, the pleasures peculiar to old age tend to be leisurely ones. Cicero gives the example of gardening. 'Need I mention the starting, planting and growth of vines?' he asked. 'I can never have too much of this pleasure... [which] gives my old age repose and amusement.'
When I was a child, I could never understand the pleasure that adults take in gardening. As I grow older, I begin to understand something of the joy and delight that patient cultivation of plants can bring. When I am old, I can well imagine spending many happy, leisurely hours in my garden.
Of course, gardening is not to everyone's taste; and for those who dwell in cities it may not even be a viable pastime. However, there are plenty of alternatives.
Those whose tastes run to sports and games can continue to enjoy them in old age, though energetic activities may need to be replaced by more sedate ones. In my youth, I enjoyed judo and squash. Now, in middle-age, I am increasingly drawn to less energetic activities like lifting weights and jogging in the park. When I am old, perhaps I will turn my attention to taiji or chess.
Those who like neither gardening nor games can cultivate other leisurely interests, like learning a language, listening to or watching musicals, reading novels and so on. The important thing is to stay interested and engaged.
'It is weariness of all pursuits that creates weariness of life," wrote Cicero. So old age needs to be a busy time, 'always doing and attempting something'.
A ripe time for death
All that remains is for me to comment on Cicero's response to the fourth complaint that people make against old age: It is the next step to death. I have already written about facing death in a previous Mind Your Body series but Cicero's slant on the subject is so interesting and beautiful that it is worth highlighting.
'What can be more in accordance with Nature,' he asked, 'than for an old man to die?' When youngsters die it is, indeed, a tragedy. It is like a fire being put out by a deluge of water, or an apple being torn unripe from a tree. But it is no tragedy for an old person to die. It is like a fire slowly burning down of its own accord, or a ripe and mellow apple dropping gently to the ground in the appropriate season.
'It is violence that takes life from young men, ripeness from old,' Cicero wrote. 'This ripeness is so delightful to me that, as I approach nearer to death, I seem... to be sighting land, and to be coming to port at last after a long voyage."
A very lovely image, I think.
Gary Hayden is a freelance writer who specialises in education, science, philosophy, health, well-being, travel and short fiction.
This is the last in a series of four articles about old age.